Helios Collaborates with USF to Make a Difference in Early Childhood Education

Posted on: February 2, 2011

"When you put a face on the issue and get out of the ivory tower, that's when you can really make a difference," says Dr. Smita Mathur.

Thanks to the Helios Education Foundation and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), Mathur now has a $1.2 million budget with which to make a difference in early childhood education in Florida's migrant and low income communities.

An assistant professor in the Division of Education at the University of South Florida Polytechnic, Mathur specializes in early childhood learning and has conducted extensive research in Florida's migrant communities. She also serves on the board of RCMA, which provides child care and early education for children of migrant farm workers and rural, low-income families in counties in Florida.

Mathur developed a teacher training program called Scaffold the Scholar, for which she helped secure a $771,000 grant from Helios Education Foundation. The total project budget will exceed $1.2 million thanks to in-kind support from RCMA. Dr. Rebecca Burns, an assistant professor of ESOL (English for speakers of other languages), USF Sarasota-Manatee, is co-principal investigator on this project. That collaboration is one of the benefits of USF Poly and USF Sarasota-Manatee being part of the USF system.

"Creating highly-effective early learning environments for children ages birth to five means surrounding those children with high-quality teachers," said Helios Education Foundation's Vice President and Director of Early Childhood Education, Karen Ortiz. "And, that is what's so promising about our partnership with USF Polytechnic and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. We're reaching teachers, most for whom English is not their primary language, in rural areas and helping them earn their credentials and degrees in early childhood education. Those same teachers will also acquire the kinds of knowledge and skills they need to better prepare children to succeed during their kindergarten year. We're really excited about that."

"USF has stepped outside the box in this grant," said Barbara Mainster, RCMA's executive director. "They've recognized that education has to adapt to meet demographic changes and respect students' contributions. And the Helios Education Foundation has recognized that such innovations need to be funded. We're excited and pleased."

RCMA operates 80 childcare centers in farm communities, targeting the rural poor. RCMA recruits its teachers from the fields to insure they can relate to cultures of the families they will be serving. More than 80 percent of RCMA teachers are from Hispanic immigrant-farmworker families.

According to Mathur, "RCMA teachers understand migrant children, the culture and lifestyle, but they often need help with English language acquisition and literacy. Scaffold the Scholar provides those missing ingredients."
New teachers at RCMA immediately acquire a future of education, some required and more encouraged. By the time they pursue college degrees, many have achieved GEDs and literacy in two languages - all while working as preschool teachers.

Starting April 1, 108 RCMA teachers will begin the 40-week Scaffold the Scholar program, which will run parallel to credit-bearing education courses at USF Poly. Objectives include promoting language and literacy, ensuring college success, and enhancing self-esteem and personal empowerment. Students meet literacy experts weekly, alternating between individual and group sessions. The literacy expert, academic advisor and teacher together make an individual plan for literacy development and academic success. Teachers will pay 10 percent of their tuition in small increments. The rest is covered by the Helios Education Foundation grant and in-kind support from RCMA.

"The initiative is strength-based, evidence-based and culturally responsive," says Mathur. "All courses feature hands-on applied learning, which aligns with the polytechnic vision. That vision also aligns with a need in the community. I learned what these teachers needed and developed a program around those needs."

While Scaffold the Scholar will benefit teachers, Mathur says it also has direct and positive academic and social outcomes for preschool aged children and their families.

"The first five years of a child's life are key to later success. That's when the brain develops the most. If you make a difference now it will carry them forward. A qualified teacher who is also culturally competent can meet the children's academic, social and emotional needs and create a pathway to school readiness."

According to Mathur, the rewards of Scaffold the Scholar will go far beyond the classroom.

"The way I see it, we as a society have two options: we can empower children and families to learn and contribute to society, or we can ignore them and develop a permanent underclass for which we will all pay for life. Forget the politics and face the facts: These migrant kids are born here and are part of our population. When we empower kids, we also empower parents and create productive and contributing members of our society.

"I believe we're redefining the migrant child. We have found their strengths and we're building on them. One day when we think of migrant children we won't think of all that isn't working for them, and instead teachers will be happy to have migrant kids in the classroom. Scaffold the Scholar is a small piece."

Removing a dollar bill from her wallet, Mathur points to the signature by U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral, who was born in California to migrant parents. "She inspires me so much," says Mathur. "If she can do it any migrant child can do it. Working in education is so exciting and energizing. I come to school and I know that I have an opportunity to make a difference. "


Category: Early Grade Success

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